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Dead too soon, far ahead of its time

I have been fascinated with high tech stuff as long as I can remember.  Growing up in the 60s right in the middle of the Apollo mission push, tech permeated the culture, and I sucked it up like a sponge.  The first book I ever had, bought by my dad as a bribe so I would read the school’s execrable “Dick and Jane” readers (Yes, I’m that old) was titled, simply, “Space”, about outer space and exploring it.

So I’ve been doing tech for a long time.  And I’ve been in the high tech industry my entire career, from before there was a Web, and when the Internet was young.  I’m used to it.  I’m familiar with it.  And one of the things you get used to is the ridiculously fast pace; you take a year off, you miss a couple of updates, and you’re screwed.  You get accustomed to it; you get so you expect it.  And in general, it’s a good thing; those bugs that annoy the crap out of you, or the slow speed of a particular app, or that lack of functionality that really drives you nuts, well, just wait a bit and hey, presto! it’s fixed.

But that has a down side.  For example:  One of my favorite PDA devices of all time was a combined PDA/game device designed for the Palm OS called the Tapwave Zodiac.  This was a sweet gizmo, with all the functionality of a high-end Palm PDA, but with game buttons and a small analog joystick, on which you could play music, manage your calendar and contacts, take notes, and every other thing you could do with your iPhone except make phone calls.  It had a beautiful, full-color touch screen (stylus required), felt great in your hand, a couple of SD slots to expand the memory space . . . it was a damn fine piece of work.

In 2005.

Two years later, the iPhone would hit the market, and to my eye it was basically an improved Tapwave Zodiac with no expansion slots that didn’t require a stylus and let you make phone calls.  The big difference was that it was backed by Apple.  The result:  iPhones are everywhere (despite Steve Ballmer’s idiotic predictions) while the Zodiac is known only to  a few obsessive enthusiasts such as myself.  It is obsolete.  And alas, all the software on it–some of which was quite wonderful–is obsolete as well.

And that’s something that is often overlooked in our fast-moving high tech environment:  The stuff that is lost.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I love living in this world.  I love the fast pace; I love the sense that we’re only one or two revisions away from an iPhone that comes with a jetpack or a transporter or something.  But sometimes you lose stuff along the way.

One of my favorite games on the Zodiac was “MicroQuad“, a cart racing game not dissimilar from MarioKarts.  If you were to see it in action, you would note the close resemblance to the iOS game Cro-Mag Rally.  But it’s not the same on the iPhone without the analog controller; if you’ve played any iOS games that require a “virtual” controller, i.e. one on the screen, you know that it’s just a weak imitation.  (I keep hoping someone will invent a plug-in piece of hardware that allows you attach buttons and an analog controller to an iPhone for some real console gameplay.  Seven years and still nothing, though.  Sigh.  Somebody do a Kickstarter for it, okay?)  So MicroQuad, a true favorite, is obsolete.

Similarly, in the early years of iOS, a company called Glu created a slow-moving, almost meditative “action” game called Glyder.  You’re a (female!) hang glider pilot in a mysterious world, collecting jewels and the like.  It wasn’t face paced; nothing died; you didn’t shoot anything; and I just loved it.  It was popular enough that they made a sequel.  But iOS never stays still, and Glu decided, for financial reasons I’m sure, that continuing to update Glyder to keep pace with iOS changes didn’t work for them.  And now Glyder is obsolete, and I can’t play another of my favorite games.

A simliar fate has apparently befallen Sandlot Games’ title “Glyph“, which was one of the very, very few games I enjoyed during my brief foray on a Windows phone (the HTC Universal, a wonderful phone that was stuck with a truly miserable operating system).  I was thrilled when Glyph was ported to iOS.  And then I was much less thrilled when it was summarily eliminated.  A victim of Sandlot’s acquisition by Digital Chocolate?  A pure financial decision?  I don’t know; all I know is that I can’t play Glyph any more, and it bums me.

Hell, there’s even a term for this:  Abandonware.

Obsolescence is something we live with all the time, with all the gadgets around us.  We expect it.  But somehow it feels even more brutal and arbitrary in the software world, a world made up of bits, of ephemeral zeroes and ones floating in a virtual world, stored for the most part in “the cloud”, so many layers of abstraction away that it’s hard to track.  And when something goes away, you can’t even pull up a picture on Google or find it on eBay.  It’s gone.  Obsolete.  And it gives me a little pang.

I guess even in the beating breast of the most hard-core techie, a bit of a romantic luddite lurks.